From Day Hiking to Thru Hiking
A Beginners Guide, Hardly.
Prior to setting foot on that Appalachian Trail I basically had zero experience. I had backpacked 65 miles of the Long Trail about a year before that was it. I was a total noob. I was convinced that I had done enough research and I had learned everything I could possibly learn to prepare myself for this giant adventure. I watched all the youtube videos, read all the articles, researched all the gear, and read all the books I could get my hands on. Little did I know most of this would mean absolutely nothing.
The first few days on trail were filled with excitement and confidence. Setting up my tent felt like a breeze, my food cooked the right way and I even dug a proper cat hole, wahoo! I was able to connect with other hikers easily and thought to myself, “I’ve got this.” While I watched others around me fumble with their gear and shut down in frustration I kept my confident smile and offered a hand of assistance. I repeated things I learned from my research to others and watched their eyes grow wide and express “why didn’t I think of that?” It was clear to me that doing research had been helpful…for now.
What I didn’t know was that there was a lot more to it than simply having functional gear, delicious meals, and a good place to poop. I recognized early on that I was a little TOO confident. I was in shape from dancing and hiking all year. I was comfortable with my body and how it functioned on the trail and I had all the gear that worked for me. People thought that I had thru-hiked before. I don’t know what gave them that impression but it was clear to me that at some point I would fail and learn some lessons.
It all started with the mac & cheese incident.
Now hear me out. I have cooked mac & cheese thousands of times at home, no sweat, no problems. It couldn’t be that different on the trail right? I was deeply excited about this Kraft’s all day long. I knew it was going to be absolutely delicious and I was pumped! I thought I might get a little creative and try to save fuel by cold-soaking the noodles partially before boiling them. That way I wouldn’t have to boil for 8-10 minutes with my small fuel canister. It made sense theoretically.
I had ditched the cheese packet packaging to “save weight” and had the noodles, cheese, and water all together in a ziplock. She was soaking, she was doing her thing. My impatience eventually got the best of me and as we sat around a fire I whipped out my stove and dumped everything into my pot. I was hungry and excited to devour this cheesy deliciousness. I flicked on the burner and within moments I could smell the smell of burning cheese and noodles. I quickly grabbed my spoon and dug to the bottom only to find a charred cheesy noodle hell. I was devastated but pretended that it wasn’t that bad. I took a big scoop with my spoon and shoved it in my mouth hoping for the best.
It was disgusting.
I was heartbroken. This delicious meal I had been dreaming of all day was ruined and not just the food but my poor pot was crusted with burned noodles and powdered cheese death. How was I going to come back from this? I scraped everything into a ziplock reluctantly and tried to wipe the sour smile from my face. I boiled water in my pot over the fire and chiseled away most of the char. I then drank that delicious grey water, leave no trace right? Ugh. I was devastated and embarrassed. This was the first time I realized I knew nothing about backcountry cooking. When I say cooking, I do not mean boiling water and dumping it into a dehydrated Mountain House Meal, I mean actually trying to cook on these little stoves. It was a humbling moment for me. I did indeed have things to learn.
This incident opened my eyes and opened a door. I no longer paid attention to the information I had collected in my brain. I realized that once you step foot on the trail it’s you versus the trail and that’s it.
The mistakes you make become lessons you learn.
As a first-time thru-hiker, the beginning weeks felt like a whirlwind of emotions. Each day was like the first day of summer camp. You meet a bunch of new hikers, some you’ll see all the way down the trail and some never again. You spend time with various trail angels doing magic at what seems like every gap you cross and you wonder why you even packed any food at all. You feel supported and surrounded by like-minded humans just trying to get through each day.
To me, it felt like we were all on the same schedules. People were hiking the same kinds of miles to try to avoid overuse injury or to help their bodies adjust to being a hiker every day. It felt easy to want to push bigger miles because I was excited and had so much energy, but it’s not smart. I remember getting to camp at one p.m. almost every day and wondering why I was setting up and settling in for the night when I had SO MUCH daylight left. I knew I needed to chill out and try to take it easy, but it was hard to do so.
Looking back now I can see that I was eager. I was ambitious. I felt like every single day was a blessing. Being on trail didn’t feel normal yet. It didn’t feel like a lifestyle. I had to learn to adjust to a new routine of waking up, packing up, walking, eating, pooping, repeating. I had to find a new flow.
Walk, drink, rest, snack, walk, snack, rest, set up camp, eat, sleep, repeat.
These beginning weeks were the miles that set the tone of success for the rest of the hike. If I couldn’t get through this, how the hell was I supposed to make it to Maine?
On top of the small everyday adjustments of simply living on the trail I still had a beast to battle.
I still ask myself this after 2,200 miles under my feet. Resupplying makes no sense to me. At first, I had boxes mailed to me and that quickly became a nightmare. I didn’t want the food I packed and I also wasn’t arriving in the towns I thought I would. I threw that out the window right away.
The flip side of this is that going to a store in town is overwhelming. Depending on the town you either got a giant grocery store, Dollar General, or a gas station. All very different. The grocery stores obviously had the best selection of food, but if you didn’t have people to split things with you ended up spending so much more money and having way too much food. It’s almost a lose-lose situation. At least at Dollar Generals and gas stations, you could buy individual items, they just weren’t always the items you wanted.
I figured as I hiked more this would become easier, but it never did.
I grew sick of the trail food very fast. I grew tired of shoving honey buns and carnations instant breakfasts down my throat every day. It all felt very forced. Food never became easy, but at least hiking did.
All of these things were struggles I never had as a day hiker. Did that mean I was a thru hiker? I was learning things left and right. I was being inspired by other hikers daily. I learned trail hacks that I had never even heard of. I started knowing nothing and felt like I gained knowledge every day for the rest of the trail.
By the end of my hike, I no longer felt the “stress” of living on the trail. It had become a lifestyle. It had finally become normal. I had learned how to live in the woods successfully and easily. I had become one with the trail and the people surrounding me.
The trail was home now.
As I hiked up the trail I asked people all along the way what was one lesson they learned on the trail. I asked for the first things that popped into their mind! Stay tuned to hear what was learned from hikers all across the Appalachian Trail!
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